Cinematic Releases: Searching (2018) - Reviewed

Every parent has had the nightmare of their children going missing. It’s hard to imagine any situation where one might feel more angry, afraid, helpless, and so many other emotions, changing minute to minute, as you attempt to remain optimistic that your child is okay no matter how much time has passed since their disappearance. Though it can be a difficult story to watch—and tell—it has provided the basis of a number of movies, from modern day pop culture touchstone Taken to Denis Villeneuve’s brilliant, harrowing 2013 film Prisoners. But in current times, when every kid has a cell phone and multiple social media accounts, can anyone really disappear? The new film Searching, the debut feature from Aneesh Chaganty, takes the classic trope of a worried parent searching for their child and gives it a refreshing modern twist.

Like the recent horror films The Den and Unfriended (and its better-forgotten sequel), the action of Searching plays out on several computer screens. When widower father David Kim’s (John Cho) 15-year-old daughter Hannah doesn’t come home, he takes to the internet to track her down with the help of a determined detective Vick (Debra Messing), and comes to learn a lot more about his missing daughter than he had ever bargained for. We follow the action right on screen as David tracks down and contacts Hannah’s friends on Facebook, studies traffic camera footage, and even plumbs the depths of Reddit to scope out the latest conspiracy theories—which are nothing compared to the shocking truth. It’s a difficult gimmick to pull off, but it suits a tale like this, though the ever-popular exposition-revealing news clips feel a bit like cheating.

Cho has been an acclaimed actor since his breakout role in 2004’s Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, and he’s had a diverse and interesting career in movies and television since. He absolutely nails the part of the worried father here, keeping it grounded and believable as opposed to the off-the-rails extremes of Hugh Jackman in Prisoners. His performance is emotional, heartbreaking, and pitch perfect for the role. Besides Cho and Messing, the rest of the cast is mostly unknowns, but every single one brings their A-game, making well-rounded and interesting characters out of what could have been hammy or ridiculous parts in less capable hands.

The mystery at the heart of Searching might also be its weakness. It’s a fascinating, twisty tale that moves at a brisk pace despite its unusual format, widely escaping the trappings of real time storytelling but unfolding in a natural way. However, Searching is best suited for novice or intermediate sleuths, as a viewer well-steeped in mysteries will have no trouble seeing the next twist (or red herring) coming a mile away. Slick format aside, Searching knows it isn’t groundbreaking cinema, just simple storytelling in a fancy package.

None of this stops Searching from being one of the year’s most entertaining and engaging films, providing the perfect antidote to the post-Labor Day, pre-Halloween moviegoing doldrums. Driven by Cho’s powerful performance and clever use of its online-voyeur format, the high quality of filmmaking and acting on display handily overcomes a likely constructed budget.  If you love a good mystery, or are just in the mood for an exhilarating good time at the movies, you’ll definitely want to seek out Searching.

--Mike Stec